As the story has been passed down at one Wichita business, a young man named Robert Foulston was standing on a ladder near his Leoti, Kan., home doing carpentry on a barn in 1907 when he had an epiphany.
It can’t be said for certain if it was a hot sun, the taxing physical labor or an intellectual yearning that drove him, but Foulston climbed down and informed his parents that he’d be going to the University of Kansas instead of getting back on that ladder.
It’s a decision that led to the largest Kansas-based law firm, Foulston Siefkin, which is now celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“We think it’s a pretty significant development that we’re kind of proud of,” says managing partner Kevin Arnel.
As part of that celebration, the firm has rebranded to simply Foulston. Over the years, there have been more than a dozen variations of the Foulston name.
Arnel says as partners rose in the firm, their names would be added to what became a “mouthful of names.”
He says most people in the community already say “the Foulston firm” or “Foulston law firm,” so he says it made sense to align with that identity.
The firm’s legal name is still Foulston Siefkin LLP.
Siefkin refers to lawyer George Siefkin, who joined Foulston at City Hall where he was Wichita’s attorney. The two started a practice together in 1919.
“The firm grew rather quickly in the . . . roaring ’20s,” says Bob Howard, who joined in 1959.
Today, there are 86 lawyers and a total staff of about 200 people at the firm’s Waterfront office and offices in Topeka and Overland Park.
Much of the firm’s history ties to the history of Wichita and Kansas as well.
Foulston became known statewide as an expert on the city manager form of government, and Siefkin drafted more than 1,000 new ordinances for that form of government, Howard says.
Foulston and Siefkin, along with a growing number of other attorneys, helped found or grow some major Wichita companies.
Lamp salesman W.C. Coleman happened to be in Foulston’s Bible study class, which is how the firm came to not only represent but help incorporate the Coleman Co.
“The firm has represented the Coleman Co. ever since,” Howard says.
Siefkin was one of a group of businessmen who raised $60,000 to lure Lloyd Stearman and his aviation firm back from California. Stearman Aircraft Co. later sold to Boeing, which also is still a client.
In its early years, the firm had some strict rules on dress and decorum. For instance, it would hire George Powers — who went on to become managing partner and founder of the Wichita Bar Show — only after he shaved his mustache.
Prominent lawyers joined the firm, such as former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Andrew Schoeppel and Samuel Bartlett, writer of the state’s probate code.
Still, when Foulston and Siefkin both died in their late 50s — in 1947 and 1954 respectively — there was courthouse gossip that the firm was doomed. Instead, a period of growth followed.
From the 1950s into the 1980s, the firm became known for its extensive litigation representation, including a more than 20-year battle for energy producers to get paid for helium extracted from natural gas. According to the firm’s history, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit at the time said it was “the largest and most complex litigation in the court’s history.”
Today, Foulston chief marketing officer Tammy Allen says transactional law, or business law, is equally as valuable as litigation.
“We have a large number of clients who hope they never see litigation,” she says.
The firm also has been active with nonprofits, such as Exploration Place, the Sedgwick County Zoo and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Howard thinks Foulston and Siefkin would approve of what the firm has become.
“I think they would think we preserved their vision of excellence,” Howard says. “Both of them were towering public servants. . . . They were just outstanding human beings as well as great lawyers.”
Arnel says the firm has “been fortunate culturally” and not had lawyers split off to form new firms.
“Our culture has been to function as a true partnership.”
He says Foulston’s lawyers treat clients as the firm’s clients and not solely their own, which he says fosters collegiality and ensures clients get the best service.
Allen says the colorful George Powers, one of the leaders who helped the firm persevere after the deaths of Foulston and Siefkin, thought Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Law of the Jungle” captured the firm’s essence.
The poem says, in part, “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
“It’s that we are one firm,” Allen says.
It’s why Foulston lawyers receive wolf statues engraved with their names and years of service on their 30-year anniversaries. There are a lot of wolf statues around the office.
Now that the firm is one name only after a century that always included Foulston and Siefkin, Arnel thinks the founders would understand.
“There’s been discussion about that,” he says. “I think both would be not only understanding of it, but pleased with it.”